Girls at risk

Even a single forced conversion is too many; it is time that everybody understood this

Girls at risk

Last week, some religious clerics rejected the (draft) Prohibition of Forced Conversions Act 2021 (the Bill) describing it as “un-Islamic” and “irrelevant”. Taking the apparently easy route, the Parliamentary Affairs Committee, overseeing the matter, wrote the Bill off without hesitation. It was broadly agreed that the Bill was un-Islamic for warranting a minimum age for conversion and marriage; and irrelevant because the current political climate did not allow such a conversation for religious minorities. Regrettably, this is one of the many legislative bills on forced conversions that have been discarded by the legislature citing similar reasons.

It has never been quite clear why there is no ‘appropriate’ time for this Bill. The clerics are reportedly opposed to the Bill because it prescribes a minimum age for consensual conversion and marriage. This rings a bell. A few years ago, many clerics opposed child marriage laws for the same reason; they were said to be un-Islamic because they imposed a minimum age for a marriage. It appears that clerics will always be opposed to a minimum age of consent. This means that we may never see an “appropriate” time. Is that reason enough to refuse protection to Pakistani girls?

In 2020 alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) tracked at least 31 cases of forced conversion, six of which involved children. In the same year, news of a young Christian girl named Arzoo being abducted and forcibly converted to Islam surfaced on social media. Arzoo had simply disappeared until her family was handed over a marriage certificate by the police, which stated that she was married. It was after much social media campaigning that the police rescued the 13-year-old allegedly married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. In crimes like these, minimum age should not be put to question because nothing about the concept of forced conversions insinuates free will. Simply put, no one can assume the free will of a thirteen year old.

However, cases like Arzoo’s are not unheard of. Most cases of forced conversion are child marriages where Christian or Hindu girls are abducted, taken into captivity and forced into converting to Islam. They are then pronounced married to older Muslim men. It is rare for such girls to return home. When they do; the trauma of the experience is understandably difficult to overcome.

This becomes especially difficult to challenge when the presumption is that this was merely a love affair gone wrong. This presupposition, coupled with the minimal social weightage given to minorities by law enforcement agencies, makes it difficult to register cases against perpetrators. It is for this reason that there is immense impunity with regard to forced conversions and some prominent political leaders and their followers openly engage in such acts.

It would not be wrong to say that Pakistan’s religious minorities have been ravaged by the culture of forced conversion. Conversations with minorities’ rights activists particularly those belonging to Sindh and Balochistan invariably result in a plea for help against abduction and forced conversion.

And yet, the clerics and the people’s representatives have now concluded that forced conversions simply do not happen. At best, these clerics and representatives believe that the numbers are put forth to impress INGOs and the international community. But then, according to these clerics, every Pakistani law promulgated for women’s protection and empowerment is somehow made to ‘impress the Western community.’

In fact, hiding behind the ‘Islamic’ values and how a bill is ‘Westernised’ is not a novel objection. Many bills, particularly those related to women’s issues, have been opposed on this pretext. Globally, these are often the arguments used by governments to avoid any actual commitment to protecting vulnerable groups, particularly women and children. It is easier to do this than to follow through and implement legal protections for such groups. Take Pakistan’s domestic violence, honour killings and sexual harassment laws for example.

The Bill seems to be a reasonable piece of legislation. It mandates that any non-Muslim adult (defined as anyone above the age of 18), able and willing to convert to any other religion will be required to obtain a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge in their area of residence. The application for conversion will require the name of the non-Muslim willing to change their religion, siblings and spouse (if any), present religion and why they are choosing to convert to another religion.

The relevant judge will be required, within seven days of such an application, to interview the applicant to consider whether there is any element of duress or coercion. The age of the applicant will be determined by their birth certificate, school enrolment certificate, NADRA B-Form or medical examination, if need be. Any person convicted of using criminal force to convert a person to another religion will be punished with imprisonment between five and ten years and a fine between Rs 100,000 and Rs 200,000. These features make it a robust law to tackle a pressing issue within available resources.

What the rejection of an Anti-Forced Conversions Bill reflects is an absolute lack of political will. Understanding minimum age as an international legal commitment, which Pakistan must abide by, is the government’s duty. This is especially important in a tryst where Pakistan’s minorities run the severe risk of being marginalised and persecuted. Discarding a pressing human rights concern as a non-issue, especially to protect its own image, has damaged Pakistan’s reputation in the past. A glaring example of this is honour killings. Until 2004, honour crimes were similarly ignored until the international community’s pressure woke Pakistan from its slumber. Today, it is crucial to learn from our mistakes and move beyond the pressures that keep our girls at risk and our legislature in the Stone Age. The government must decide between the two: being humiliated for failing to protect its religious minorities and acknowledging the existence of a crime and addressing it.

Pakistan’s women will continue to suffer if men in key decision-making positions continue seeing them as non-entities. Hiding behind outdated reasoning based on cultural sensitivities in a crime which significantly impacts minorities, especially women, is no longer an option. Even a single forced conversion is too many; it is time that everybody understood this.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets at @noorejazch

Girls at risk